WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- President Bush's father liked to quote the Woody Allen line that 90 percent of life is just showing up. In fact, George H.W. Bush's signal achievement in Middle East diplomacy came from persuading leaders and representatives from Israel and much of the Arab world to show up for a peace conference in Madrid at the end of October 1991.
It wasn't easy. Then-Secretary of State James A. Baker III traveled and negotiated for months to remove obstacles blocking this face-to-face meeting of longtime enemies. Neither side wanted to confer legitimacy on the other without extracting a price. At times the competing demands from various parties resembled the haggling at a Middle East bazaar. Baker's bare-knuckled pressure on Israel left a residue of resentment among American Jews. Still, the conference achieved real progress.
Now George W. Bush seems to be taking a leaf from his father's playbook and applying the Woody Allen maxim to Tuesday's Israeli-Palestinian peace conference in Annapolis. His administration hopes a strong turnout of prominent world figures, particularly from Arab states, will bolster Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in negotiations aimed at finally creating a Palestinian state that coexists with Israel. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has set a goal of reaching a deal before Bush leaves office in January, 2009.
Yet the excitement and anticipation that surrounded the Madrid conference are all but absent in the leadup to Annapolis. This week's brief gathering on the Chesapeake is haunted by the past 14 years of disappointment, failure and violence. That merely "showing up" is once again important shows how far regional attitudes have slid backward from the progress of the early 1990s.
The 1991 conference included bitter reminders of a half-century of war, suffering and hatred.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir accused Syria of having "one of the most oppressive, tyrannical regimes in the world," of being a host to terrorists and a country whose shrinking, ancient Jewish community "has been exposed to cruel oppression, torture and discrimination of the worst kind."
Syria's foreign minister, Farouk al-Sharaa, in turn, held up an old "wanted" poster showing Shamir at 32, when the Israeli was a commander in the Stern Gang, which carried out attacks against British forces in mandatory Palestine. "He himself recognized that he was a terrorist. That he practices terrorism," Sharaa declared, accusing Shamir of aiding the 1948 assassination of a United Nations mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte.
Such outbursts notwithstanding, the Madrid meeting broke through the taboos that had kept Arab states from dealing with Israel and Israelis from negotiating with Palestinians. It marked a time when merely "showing up" meant something. Jews and Arabs met publicly; some shook hands. Palestinians got to address a global audience.
When the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, swept into the Spanish royal palace in traditional desert garb, he conferred a legitimacy on the gathering from the custodians of Mecca and Medina. And Baker's months of pre-Madrid diplomacy produced a legal edifice, a series of understandings and assurances, grounded in United Nations resolutions, that clarified U.S. positions on tough issues and served as a guide to future talks.
The conference led immediately to direct negotiations. A few years later, a new Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, reconciled with the Palestine Liberation Organization as a result of secret talks begun in Oslo. PLO leader Yasser Arafat, who was the uninvited elephant in the room at Madrid, negotiated his way back to his homeland. A declaration of principles signed on the White House lawn in September 1993, launched the Palestinians on a path to self-government and, by implication, eventual statehood. An Israeli-Jordanian peace agreement quickly fell into place.
One key difference between then and now is America's role in the Middle East and the world. Madrid coincided with the end of the Cold War. The Soviet Union was collapsing. When George H.W. Bush welcomed then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to Madrid as a cosponsor of the peace process, his was a gesture of friendship by the United States toward a defeated and depleted adversary.
America seemed pre-eminent. U.S. forces had driven Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait, protecting the oil-rich Persian Gulf states and containing, for the time being, an aggressive dictator who had threatened to burn half of Israel. The PLO and Syria had lost their once-powerful Soviet patron and acquiesced to U.S. leadership, breaking up the pan-Arab ring of hostility toward Israel.
That period didn't last. The elder President Bush and his aides could not sustain their pre-Madrid effort. American public opinion turned from euphoria over the 1991 victory in Iraq to discontent with the state of the U.S. economy. As a 1992 presidential campaign loomed, the forceful U.S. role as honest broker in the Mideast peace process diminished. Israeli-Syrian talks became a "dialogue of the deaf." Americans became bystanders to Israel's negotiations with the PLO. Vaunted "multilateral talks" on regional issues like water and arms control lost momentum.
The period of Bill Clinton's presidency brought missed deadlines, unmet commitments, periodic flare-ups of terror and violence and a series of wrenching Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over narrow issues, putting off important topics. American mediators veered from concentrating on the Israeli-Palestinian track to trying to broker an Israeli-Syrian deal. Palestinian self-rule turned corrupt and autocratic.
An all-or-nothing Israeli-Palestinian peace marathon at Camp David in the summer of 2000 ended in failure. The Intifada that erupted in the fall of 2000 dealt a fatal blow to Israel's weak Labor-led coalition and decimated the ranks of peace proponents.
When Israelis and Palestinians sat down for 11th-hour peace talks early in 2001 in Taba, Egypt, Americans were absent. The inconclusive talks at Taba halted direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for the next seven years, as the death toll from terror and retaliation climbed from hundreds in early 2001 into thousands.
The George W. Bush administration pulled back from America's traditional role as mediator to concentrate on the global war on terror and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
When pulled into the Israeli-Palestinian arena, Bush demanded Palestinian reforms and a crackdown on terror without laying down a clear path to peace. Efforts spurred by others, such as the 2003 "road map," failed to gain traction. The Israeli-Syrian track was all but forgotten. When then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon prepared to evacuate Israeli settlers and soldiers from Gaza, no one seized the chance to renew the peace process.
The lack of serious American involvement combined with mounting bloodshed and multiple failures in Iraq to turn opinion in much of the Arab world against the United States. American military power became overstretched, and rocketing oil prices, buoyed by instability in Iraq, transferred wealth from the industrial West to the oil-producing Gulf states and Russia.
Madrid had fed hopes of ending Israel's regional isolation. Indeed, diplomatic contacts opened between Israel and Persian Gulf and North African states. Commercial ties expanded among Israel, Jordan and Egypt. Handshakes stopped being news. But recent years of conflict have erected new barriers to regional acceptance of the Jewish state. Hence the keen American desire to persuade Arabs, particularly Saudi Arabia, to send high-level delegations to Annapolis.
On Friday, key Arab states agreed reluctantly to send foreign ministers; Syria was expected to attend. But the Arabs' delayed commitment reflected unease about U.S. determination in the twilight of the Bush presidency.
Added to that was a widespread sense that even in the best case, the two men leading the negotiations lack the clout and credibility to forge a lasting peace agreement. Neither has captured the imagination of a dispirited public.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is dogged by probes into alleged corruption and his ill-fated 2006 invasion of Lebanon. Significant Israeli concessions could fracture his coalition. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas presides over a broken polity.
Israeli forces still control much of the West Bank. In Gaza, home to 1.5 million Palestinians, the Islamist militant movement Hamas is tightening its grip. Logic presents Olmert, Abbas and the United States with an unpalatable choice: a Palestinian state that excludes Gaza, or one in which Hamas wields a veto.
Both Olmert and Abbas seem prepared to resolve the tough issues that, since Taba, have been treated as a third rail of Mideast politics: final borders separating Israel and Palestine; how to divide or share Jerusalem and its holy places, and a permanent settlement for Palestinians displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and their descendants.
Yet these so-called "final status" issues are no longer the final hurdle to peace, if they once were. A lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is now bound up with a range of interconnected regional problems that have grown more serious over the past seven years: the U.S.-Iranian nuclear confrontation, stabilization of Iraq, the Iran-Syria alliance and turmoil in Lebanon.
If the absent Yasser Arafat was a relatively benign "elephant in the room" in Madrid, the parties not invited to Annapolis project a greater menace. Chief among them is Iran. Since the collapse of the peace process in 2001, Iran has increased its ability to keep the pot simmering in the region immediately bordering Israel, thanks to the entrenched power of its proxy Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, the Hamas takeover of Gaza and the freeze in U.S. relations with Syria. All those who show up in Annapolis will know this.
Mark Matthews, former diplomatic and Middle East correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, is the author of "Lost Years: Bush, Sharon and Failure in the Middle East."